Columban missionary who survived kidnapping by Islamic militants in 2009 has died

Fr Michael Sinnott,

Fr Michael Sinnott,

The funeral took place on Wednesday 27 November in Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath of Irish missionary, Fr Michael Sinnott, who was kidnapped in 2009 by Islamic militants in the Philippines and held for 32 days before he was released unharmed.

He died in Our Lady's Hospital, Navan on 23 November, the feast of St Columban, patron of the Missionary Society of St Columban.

Fr Sinnott was the subject of national and international headlines ten years ago following his abduction by six gunmen who stormed his residence near the city of Pagadian in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao on 11 October 2009.

When he was finally released and handed over to police and government officials in the Filipino city of Zamboanga on 11 November 2009, the Taoiseach at the time, Brian Cowen, said the Government and the country were "relieved and thankful that the priest's ordeal had been brought to an end".

The Regional Director of the Columbans in the Philippines, Fr Pat O'Donoghue, described Fr Michael in 2009 as "a man of utter integrity who doesn't see himself as being brave but who will do what he believes has to be done without fear of the consequences."

Fr Sinnott was widely admired in Mindanao particularly for his role in setting up the Hangop Kabataan (The Children's Shelter) foundation for children with special needs in 1998.

Speaking in 2009 about the Foundation he explained that it was open to children of all faiths and none, as inclusivity was the ethos at the heart of the project. "We pick up about 60 children every morning and bring them to the centre and also visit about 17 who are confined to their homes", he said.

He was spurred to set up the community-based rehabilitation initiative by the lack of facilities for children with disabilities in Pagadian. "There was nothing being done for them and when we started in 1998, an awful lot of the children were hidden away in their homes. Quite simply, their parents didn't know what to do with them or how to help them," he explained.

Fr Sinnott retired to Ireland in 2012.

He was the third Irish Columban to be kidnapped in Mindanao. In 1997, Fr Des Hartford was held by Islamic militants for 12 days, and in 2001 Fr Rufus Halley was shot dead during an attempted abduction.

Michael Sinnott was born in Clonard, Wexford on 17 December 1929 and joined the Columbans in Navan in 1948. Following his ordination in December 1954, he finished postgraduate studies in canon law in Rome before being appointed to the Philippines in 1957.

His first term in the Philippines was spent in Kapatagan and Iligan in Mindanao where he was involved in traditional catechetical and sacramental work of the church. He was struck by the extreme poverty of the people.

In 1966 he was called back to Dalgan, to teach canon law and be rector of the seminary. In 1976 he was delighted to be re-assigned to the Philippines to the parish of Oroquieta. For the next ten years he worked in the Pagadian area where he gained the reputation as a fearless defender of people and their rights.

According to Fr Neil Collins, "Dumalinao was a huge parish, with a parish church, 82 barrio chapels, and just one priest. The rebel New People's Army was very strong, and President Ferdinand Marcos poured troops into Mindanao. Both sides committed atrocities and Mick stood up for the rights of the poor. He was vocal in his criticism of military abuses and local corruption. There were many bad days where he had to identify dead bodies."

When he turned 70, he decided that he wanted to set up a school for children with disabilities. The school was approved as a diocesan project. The bishop offered him an old Japanese jail. Workers had to smash through the thick walls to make windows. Hangop Kabataan, the Children's Shelter opened on 3 August 1998. It is a place of joy and hope.

But the years were beginning to tell. In 2005, he had a quadruple heart bypass. Then, as he approached his 80th birthday he was kidnapped. His captors brought him first to a swamp area. His only way to exercise was to walk in place. Some days later the army seemed to be getting close, so they moved him to a mountain valley. It was 32 days before his release was agreed. Despite all the hardships he endured it's remarkable that in the interviews he gave afterwards he repeatedly thanked his captors for their efforts to make him comfortable.

According to Fr Neil Collins, what kept him going was prayer, his daily Holy Hour, and in captivity many rosaries. One of his closest friends, Corazon Mendoza paid this tribute to him:

"He was a man of prayer,
merciful to the poor,
who ministered to the sick, for even if the sick lived in a remote mountain he'd go to them.
He listened deeply to the problems of life.
He supported the education of students who wanted to complete their course, especially if they were poor."

Twitter - @irishcolumbans

Tags: Columbans, Fr Michael Sinnott, Pagadian

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